Vols show toughness against Tide, but Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt frustrated by missed chances

AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt shouts at officials during the Vols' game at Alabama on Saturday night.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - All Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt wanted was a chance Saturday night.

For more than three quarters, his Volunteers had stayed in range of Alabama, the top-ranked team in the country. But they wound up losing 35-13, doomed by a potential 14-point swing on one play.

The Vols' defense had held its own against the Crimson Tide's high-powered offense - even picking off Tua Tagovailoa, which led to a tying score in the first quarter. The Tennessee offense sputtered some after an injury to freshman quarterback Brian Maurer, but the Vols kept hanging in and were on the doorstep of a touchdown that could make it a one-score game.

With 7:21 remaining, that all changed.

Trailing by 15, the Vols had moved the ball 40 yards in 11 plays and faced fourth-and-goal at the Alabama 1-yard line. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano took the snap and attempted to leap over the pile into the end zone. The redshirt junior lost the ball, and it was recovered by Alabama defensive back Trevon Diggs, who sprinted 100 yards for the game-clinching score.

After the play, Pruitt had a heated conversation with Guarantano, and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout played quarterback the final two possessions for Tennessee (2-5, 1-3 Southeastern Conference).

"It wasn't a deflating play. It pissed me off," Pruitt said. "We had put a great drive together - really ran the ball at will down through there - and I would have liked to see us get the ball down there and see what we could have done.

"There are a lot of things that didn't go our way tonight. Some we can control; some we can't."

photo AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Tennessee running back Tim Jordan breaks into the open field during Saturday night's game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Penalties also made Pruitt unhappy. The Vols - who averaged only five penalties a game through the first half of their schedule - were flagged 13 times against the Tide (7-0, 4-0), totaling 93 yards, both highs since Pruitt took over as coach prior to the 2018 season.

One such flag came after a third-down stop in the third quarter. Trailing 21-13, the Vols thought they had forced Alabama's offense into a three-and-out series, but after the third-down play Darrell Taylor was flagged for unnecessary roughness after hitting quarterback Mac Jones - who had come into the game after Tagovailoa departed with an ankle injury.

"There was a lot of flags," Pruitt said. "Through six games, we're the least-penalized team in the SEC, but we probably had more flags in the first quarter than we have had in an entire game. We might have been guilty; I don't know.

"I didn't see (the Taylor hit), and there was no replay, so I have no idea. Here's how I look at it: You've got a chance there; it's a one-score game and we'd stopped them two times in a row. I don't know what happened, but I know this: They hit our quarterback (Maurer) and he got a concussion and no flag."

Multiple players were asked about the Guarantano fumble. Each player - like Pruitt before - called it a miscommunication.

But it was the turning point in a game that Tennessee was never supposed to be in from the beginning. Alabama - a 34.5-point favorite - coasted downfield for the game's first score, but on the second possession the Vols' Nigel Warrior intercepted a Tagovailoa pass in the end zone and returned the ball 59 yards into Alabama territory. Six plays and 41 yards later, Maurer plunged in from a yard out to tie the game.

The Tide then scored touchdowns on their next two possessions to build a 21-10 lead at the break. The Vols - who played the first half without freshman inside linebacker Henry To'o To'o, who had to sit out due to a targeting call in the second half a week earlier against Mississippi State - lost senior inside linebacker Daniel Bituli to a similar call prior to the score that made it 21-10. Because it happened in the first half, Bituli will be available next week against South Carolina.

The final tally read Alabama 35, Tennessee 13. At times it felt closer. At times it felt more lopsided.

But for a portion of the game, it felt even.

"It was a tough-fought game," Warrior said. "I'm pretty sure a lot of people didn't expect us to come out and play how we played, but I think in my heart we gave them a run for their money and I think we're supposed to have came out on top, but Alabama played great.

"Our first maxim is the team with the fewest mistakes wins, and they had the fewest mistakes."

ALABAMA 35, TENNESSEE 13

Staff writer Gene Henley breaks down the game in bits and pieces.SATURDAY’S STARAlabama running back Najee Harris rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the win. An injury to starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hampered one of the nation's top passing games, but the Crimson Tide leaned heavily on their ground attack, rushing for 140 yards and three scores.SATURDAY’S STATThe Volunteers averaged five penalties per game in the first half of the season but were flagged 13 times against Alabama, totaling 93 yards. One of those penalties was a targeting call against senior inside linebacker Daniel Bituli in the second quarter.TURNING POINTTennessee, trailing 28-13 with less than eight minutes to play, had driven to the Alabama 1-yard line and was facing fourth-and-goal, but quarterback Jarrett Guarantano fumbled while trying to dive over the pile. Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs recovered the ball in the end zone and raced to the other end zone for a score.HIGHLIGHT PLAYIt was the same play as the turning point, but from a different perspective. Diggs was behind the pileup at the line of scrimmage but saw the ball bouncing free, scooped it up and took off for the touchdown.WHAT IT MEANSTennessee did play well for much of the game. The offensive line held up and the defense had its moments, but quarterback trouble again arose. Every game left on the schedule is winnable, which can make the season salvageable, but the Vols need to find a consistent, durable player to lead their offense.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.